The Fact of Feeling in Robert Frost’s ‘Directive’

Kieran Doherty / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Robert Frost once described his initial joy in making a poem as “the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew.” As a method of getting at the truth, poetry has no claims to scientific rigor—and that’s not why I read it. Rather, I think of poetry as the fact of feeling: what happens when experience transcends received forms of knowledge. Much of the pleasure I take in reading poetry is discovering, through the beauty of language, human truths that I feel but cannot utter.

Such is the case with Frost’s “Directive,” which I love for its depiction of a grief so enormous and incomprehensible that it can only be understood through the story the speaker tells. It’s a story of the impossibility of wholeness and the inevitability of loss—of how humans’ carefully built structures of order and meaning must give way to the indifferent natural laws of death, erosion, and decay:

The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you’re lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

The literary critic Randall Jarrell once said that “Directive” is a poem that’s “hard to understand, but easy to love.” By the poem’s end, I always emerge dazed by its immensity, lost in the landscape of a grief littered with the tender remains of the poem’s many broken things.

If there’s any such thing as an actual directive in the poem, I’d argue it’s this: to recognize that in the end we are not wholly alone, even though we are not whole. Like the children in the playhouse, we too have our own tender little things in the clarifying solace of poetry, if only we raise our broken goblets and believe:

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it,
So can’t get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn’t.
(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)

Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.